Adafruit founder and engineer Limor Fried: ‘If ‘things’ could talk, what would they say?’

7 December, 2016

“Internet of Things,” or IoT, is a term we hear everywhere with everything.

It could be one of the most transformational next chapters for computing and networking — or it could be a zombie bot-net of unconfigured complex devices that don’t have much use.

Every time a new technology comes along, making things easier and lowering costs are usually the first goals, but what I’m most interested in with the Internet of Things is educating and documenting how to actually build and use it.

One of the reasons I started Adafruit was to create the best place online for learning electronics and to make the best designed products for makers of all ages and skill levels.

Empowering students and professionals with the tools to develop their own IoT apps is one of the first steps. Are the tools available, documented and open-source? Are there software and hardware examples to help users quickly get started? Just like DIY electronics, the first 15 minutes are crucial, special and fragile, because we only have a few minutes to capture new users’ attention and build their confidence.

I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer a small piece to the puzzle.

Adafruit IO an Internet of Things service for makers that makes data useful, accessible and understandable, and allows users to create real-world applications even while they’re still learning about “things” that might be on the internet. Our focus is on ease of use, and allowing simple data connections with little programming required.

raspberry_pi_img_5610IO, which is built on Ruby on Rails, and Node.js, includes client libraries that wrap our REST and MQTT APIs. Anyone can use the beta service at Adafruit IO, and we offer plenty of guides, code and videos to get started quickly. This service, along with our open-source hardware and open-source code, gets makers spun up quickly so they can start making things work and making things talk, and start building real-world apps like sensor logging and cloud-connected Raspberry Pi cameras.

The audiences who use IoT and Raspberry Pi run the gamut, from advanced users (“pro-makers”) using the low-cost Raspberry Pi in a production environment to beginners who are just getting started. What we’ve tried to do is offer ready-to-go projects with example code to get anyone started regardless of their skill level. It’s important to have people of many different skill levels and expertise participate because you never know where a good idea will come from and you’ll never be able to guess every problem that needs to be solved.

If ‘things’ are going to be able to talk, we first need to teach them (and ourselves) what to say, so we’re starting with, ‘We’re here to help.’

We decided to launch Adafruit IO not only for beginners, but also for advanced users to have a “playground” for testing hardware and software with IoT projects.

Although the playground analogy isn’t a perfect fit, I like to think of it this way: When digital cameras came out and eventually rivaled their analog counterparts, technology companies did not do a good job of educating people on how to use their cameras. With digital cameras, there are thousands of features and settings — but most of us know how to use only a few. So many people now use their phone as their full-time camera, so that was a missed opportunity. What we can do with IoT is have a range of simple to complex uses that are well documented and well understood.

Another one of our goals is to show some real-world problem-solving that can apply to a variety of skill levels. We want that kid in 4H to be able to use IoT sensors to monitor water, temperature and even livestock. We also want to create family projects like “alerts” if there is a flood in the basement. If “things” are going to be able to talk, we first need to teach them (and ourselves) what to say, so we’re starting with, “We’re here to help.”

We hope to bring our open-source values to a bigger audience, which is why we’ve worked with Microsoft on their IoT Azure Starter Kits, and to help get us started with our IoT efforts.

In the past, we were the bleeding-edge hackers who brought makers into the Microsoft world through the Kinect, and while at first there might have been reluctance, our ideas were embraced and even extended by the Microsoft community, and we ended up working together.

People need to know how IoT works. They need to understand that they can be part of it and that they can create it together. That’s why we are excited and we hope you are, too!

It’s also why Adafruit crafted an Internet of Things “Bill of Rights.” Because these principles matter to what we make, and what we share:

  • Open is better than closed; this ensures portability between Internet of Things devices.
  • Consumers, not companies, own the data collected by Internet of Things devices.
  • Internet of Things devices that collect public data must share that data.
  • Users have the right to keep their data private.
  • Users can delete or back up data collected by Internet of Things devices.
  • Let us take responsibility together for building systems that are easier to use for good and harder to use maliciously

We invite you to comment on GitHub.

Limor “Ladyada” Fried is the founder and engineer of Adafruit.